"Unleashing social power"
Polly Neate CBE
Chief Executive, Shelter
Charities are essential to the way our country works, as an economy and as a society. Without them, some of our communities and individuals would be left behind and left out. At times of crisis and need this is even more the case. But you would never think it given how others talk about us on most platforms, or even given how we talk about ourselves.
I have never been more convinced of our importance. Shelter is just one example. At the start of 2020 the world looked unremittingly bleak for the people who turn to Shelter for help. The challenges we faced to change it for the better, working with individuals, in communities and across society, were considerable. At least 17,000 fewer social homes existed compared with the previous year, despite a waiting list of 1.1 million people. A grossly inadequate housing benefit system was failing the three in every 10 private renters who relied on it for survival. Landlords and agents still thought it was acceptable to discriminate against people on benefits through “no DSS” exclusions. But we had a plan and our Shelter teams know what we’re here for: to defend the right to a safe home. We were ready for the challenges to come: getting the best possible outcome for every individual we support, getting rid of no fault evictions, making the case for rebalancing the economy of our country in a way that gets social homes built and pursuing discrimination through the courts. We knew what we faced, and we knew what we were doing about it.
We knew we were already in a housing crisis, a national emergency ruining hundreds of thousands of lives. But we knew what we were dealing with. Then the biggest public health crisis any of us had ever seen collided with the existing housing crisis and those caught in the fallout were those Shelter exists to help.
“The country desperately needed our legal advice and support and yet we had to limit physical meetings and shut up so much of the fundraising we need to keep going.”
The single mother with two young kids living in one room of an emergency B&B, sharing a bathroom with other families and unable to protect her children, emerges – mental and physical health in shreds – to learn that her chance of escaping homelessness is now even more remote. Because there are many, many more just like her.
Research Shelter commissioned during the crisis shows that as housebuilding stalls due to the recession we could lose over 80,000 new homes in 2020. By early July we saw almost 3 million additional people had been forced to sign up to Universal Credit during the pandemic. The country desperately needed our legal advice and support and yet we had to limit physical meetings and shut up so much of the fundraising we need to keep going.
We refocused our campaigning on the new emergency at hand. In particular, we pressed the Government to suspend evictions, and they did – suspending the courts to at least slow, if not yet stop, the rising tide of Covid-related homelessness. The Government also increased housing benefit to cover the bottom third of rents. We won a landmark case on discrimination against people on benefits by landlords and agents, proving that “no DSS” is unlawful discrimination and has to stop. Above all, throughout lockdown, I saw every one of Shelter’s employees commit every last drop of energy and creativity to keep our work going in seemingly impossible circumstances.
But the challenge before us is still considerable and I worry that, as emergency measures end, things could be about to get harder.
Our frontline services are already stretched. And what we know is that 230,000 private renters have already fallen behind with their rent since the start of the pandemic. 1.7 million private renters anticipate losing their jobs in the next few months. The homelessness system will absolutely not be able to cope. It’s been hard enough to find homes for just 10,000 former rough sleepers who were accommodated in hotels during lockdown. Temporary accommodation is already being used by families for whom it’s simply not suitable – not even humane a lot of the time. Unless the Government addresses the problems that existed before the pandemic began, we are heading for disaster. You can’t solve homelessness without homes. It really is that simple and it really is obvious what the Government has to do.
“It’s time for civil society leaders to step up, above our individual causes, for the cause of civil society itself”
Shelter is just one example of the critical role civil society organisations have played during the pandemic and will continue to play as the country struggles back to its feet. If we expect our fellow citizens not to be homeless, not to starve, not to find there’s no one to listen or help when stress, pressure and illness become too much, we must understand that we expect charities to step up. From those who ensured children received the healthy food they needed during lockdown, to those planning a cleaner, greener approach to recovery. It’s thanks to civil society we still have reasons to be optimistic about what we can achieve in our communities when we work together.
Despite all this, there is a disconnect between the role charities play in our society and what the public – and, all too frequently, the government – thinks their role is. It’s time for civil society leaders to step up, above our individual causes, for the cause of civil society itself: the importance of a country in which charities play a leading role.
Who does have a say in our society’s future? Looking at the panellists of shows like Question Time gives an idea. The way we tackle the pandemic has been debated by health experts, thinktank bosses, business leaders, out of work actors and politicians. What you will not have seen is the head of a charity. I am lucky to be asked to explain the impact of the pandemic on homelessness in specific news items on exactly that topic, but the broader social discourse is very rarely something I or my peers in the charity sector are asked to join.
The impact of the pandemic on the nation’s economy, mental health, infrastructure investment and the whole levelling up debate will be informed by CBI, the TUC and footballers, but charities are not part of that conversation. Given the work charities do this does not just do a disservice to us; it means our national debate is poorly informed.
It is reflective of the diminished role of civil society in the minds of decision-makers that we have simply not had enough support in this pandemic. Many organisations are far more vulnerable than we are at Shelter, as I know from many conversations with my fellow charity CEOs. We are one of the lucky ones, but despite huge generosity from our supporters there is simply no way to fill the hole left by cancelled fundraising events, closed charity shops and months of keeping our dedicated face-to-face fundraisers off the streets. Every day our shops stayed shut was another £28,000 gone.
The missed opportunities to recruit new donors, who guarantee the sustainability of our life-changing work, will be felt for years.
Yet we have both reserves and teams of determined fundraisers who will throw the kitchen sink at ensuring our survival. If Pro Bono Economics are right that 1 in 10 charities faces bankruptcy, I fear that neither the Government nor the public understands what that means. If we change forever, so does Britain. And not for the better.
“I think we have grown shy after years of having salaries examined, political motivations questioned and a sense we should be seen but not heard, delivering services without engaging in the national debate around what those services are to do. This has been a huge mistake.”
I’ve been looking for hard evidence during the pandemic that the Government has understood the role of charities in our country. Frankly, I haven’t found it.
Yes, there has been some help to some charities to mitigate the worst effects of Covid. But the funds offered are not available to everyone and they are simply not enough. The language used in the Government’s press release about its ‘charity rescue package’ was not helpful either – like many other charities, we actually saw a dip in much-needed donations as people thought we’d been ‘bailed out’, when that was far from the case.
Most of the small amount of emergency cash available has been filtered through ministers’ or funders’ choice of causes. This paternalistic attitude that the Government knows which charities are best, is a dangerous one. It stops government providing the kind of broad package of support offered to business. And it risks politicising a sector that works hard to ensure that it is driven purely by need and not by assumption or political prejudice.
I am not saying this as an attack on politicians or the editors of BBC discussion shows. If we are not relevant to the national conversation, we need to consider why that is. I think we have grown shy after years of having salaries examined, political motivations questioned and a sense we should be seen but not heard, delivering services without engaging in the national debate around what those services are to do. This has been a huge mistake. The temptation to stick rigorously to prepared comments from a media specialist, to not give views that aren’t strictly related to the area we are directly working on. We should not be afraid of our own voice and our right to be heard. We should not because we represent the experiences of millions in need of that voice in this country.
We are not an extension of the state, there to silently deliver services no longer provided by local councils. There is nothing wrong with taking government funding to deliver services that we know are needed – but if that comes at the price of not having a voice then it comes at too high a price. Silence is a disservice to the unique role we play in our community.
There can be solutions from the right or the left to the crisis people are facing. But we have reached a place where the common cause is not relevant – only the ideological barriers. The divided, sceptical nature of our national discourse is both a product and a cause of the fact that civil society has been largely put on mute.
“Yes, we should speak truth to power – and some politicians don’t like that, at least while they have the power. But that’s the point of us: undistracted by personality or profit, we exist for those that need us most.”
If we were to speak louder about the structural problems we can’t help but see, we could rebalance the idea that it was ever thus, reject the simplification that the problem is purely the wrong people in power and look instead at power in the wider sense: the disempowerment of individuals beyond the day they visit a polling station – and the disempowerment that means millions don’t even do that.
Because that is the critical role that separates us from politicians or business leaders. The community spirit we’ve seen during the pandemic is not an alternative to us. It is us. We create change and our social responsibility is not an add-on to enriching shareholders, it is our purpose. The self-criticism and reflection that partly drive us into reticence are intrinsic to our value: genuinely, it’s not all about us.
Yes, we should speak truth to power – and some politicians don’t like that, at least while they have the power. But that’s the point of us: undistracted by personality or profit, we exist for those that need us most.
Let’s not kid ourselves: politicians need us to be independent minded too. Even those who get het up at first when we propose a different way of doing things will usually discover that genuinely weighing up options with a critical friend is a good way to arrive at the solution they need, sometimes even providing the reason to act that they were looking for, or the idea that civil servants felt they couldn’t propose. The most successful politicians of all parties come to realise that civil society organisations can be used to test and develop the best ideas – not to mention providing free research, analysis and policy development that many government departments have come to rely upon. And eventually, when the other side is in government, the new opposition realises we’re still playing with exactly the same straight bat.
As well as supporting some of those worst affected by the crisis right now, charities of all shapes and sizes will play a crucial role in the search for solutions that will ensure the country’s recovery from Covid. That is, unless they go to the wall.
If the voices of charities remain silent, the whole country will lose out. What we need for the next decade is a louder, prouder, more assertive sector, not beholden to investors or a party system or a civil service code or a newspaper proprietor. From the Victorian philanthropists, to the activists of the 1960s, the feminists of the 1980s, the organisers of the last 20 or 30 years, the disability movement, young people in care getting organised – you name it, forming a charity has been a way of joining together to change things for the better for far longer than living memory. When you put those movements together, you have the charities of today. No more diverse than business or the public sector, and no less able to speak up if we choose to.
 P Butler, “Coronavirus leaves one in 10 UK charities facing bankruptcy this year”, The Guardian, 9 June 2020
 A Ruzicka, “Will the £750m coronavirus lifeline for charities be enough? Small organisations warn they could still go bust and plead for vital public donations to stay afloat”, This is Money, 11 April 2020